They both may have called Al Neuharth "boss" at one time.
But it became clear, by the end of Thursday night's program in the Wayne S. Knutson Theatre on the University of South Dakota campus, that Neuharth, Cathie Black and Frank Vega share a strong bond. What first started strictly as a boss-employee relationship has transformed into a warm friendship.
Evidence of that came near the end of the program, during a moment when the three dropped nearly all formality and began swapping humorous stories about the workplace adventures the three once shared.
Earlier in the evening, Neuharth presented Black and Vega each with the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media.
Vega and Black had earlier spent the day with mass communication students at USD, and were commonly asked about the prospects of future employment in media.
"To any of you in the audience tonight, I would like to suggest that yes, you will get them (your first job), but it is a little bit like working for Al Neuharth. It's about Chinese water torture. It just keeps on dripping and you keep on going forth, and you never, ever can take 'no' for an answer," Black said.
Innovators and entrepreneurs, she said, constantly change a single act – the act of informing people, she said. "That's what Al Neuharth did. You've heard this over and over, but for those of us who were attracted to this company, and to Al's vision, there was simply no way to say 'no.' For Al, equal opportunity was not a sign posted on the cafeteria bulletin board.
"Al Neuharth had gone against convention for his entire career, and what he really wanted were people who wouldn't take no for an answer," Black said. "It didn't matter what school you went to, what country club you did or didn't belong to, or where you were from. What he really wanted to know was where you wanted to go. With Al, it was all about your goals, your dreams, your ambitions and your ideas."
Black said she "loved being along for the ride" as president and later publisher of USA TODAY.
"Some were very low rides, some were high rides, and there were times we were on a roller coaster," she said.
USA TODAY had many naysayers shortly after its launch, especially among Wall Street analysts, Black said, who expressed a strong belief that the newspaper could never be financially successful.
"Al would say, 'Forget those people in New York. They don't know what readers really want.' He was steadfast in that idea, that the right newspaper, in the right time, gave the reader what they wanted when they wanted it and how they wanted it."
"I spent 20 years working with you, for you, loving you and hating you, sometimes all at the same time, and for all of you who have read Al's autobiography, yes, you were the only S.O.B. who combines all of those traits," Vega told Neuharth as he accepted his award.
A bad day with Neuharth, Vega said later in the program, could revolve around a seemingly trivial matter. One of Vega's roles, at one time, was to make sure that Neuharth received his USA TODAY on time every morning at his home in Florida.
"He wrote me a very long letter about how when he doesn't get his papers at exactly 5:30 a.m., it changes his whole schedule," Vega said. "In this letter, he presently went through a day in his life, and how I had disrupted his entire day by how I had disrupted his entire day by not having his papers entirely on time."
"Let me interrupt you for a minute," Neuharth said, drawing laughter from the audience. "This was after USA TODAY was okay, and Frank had been promoted to publisher of Florida Today."
Vega had been directed by Neuharth to have five newspapers regularly delivered to his Florida home every morning, including USA TODAY.
"One of those papers were missing one morning," Neuharth said, "and I did call Frank at home and I said … I got no USA TODAY this morning.
"And Frank said," Neuharth added, "very calmly, even though I had to wake him, 'Well boss, we usually don't publish USA TODAY on Saturday, but if you want us to, we will."
As chairman of Hearst Magazines, Black manages the financial performance and development of some of the industry's best-known titles including O, The Oprah Magazine; Popular Mechanics; Esquire; Cosmopolitan and Town & Country. She also oversees nearly 200 international editions of those and nine additional magazines in more than 100 countries.
Her book, "Basic Black: The Essential Guide for Getting Ahead at Work (and in Life)" reached No. 1 on the Wall Street Journal Business Books list and Business Week best-seller list and No. 3 on the New York Times Business Books list. "Basic Black" is now in its eighth printing.
Black began her career in advertising sales with several magazines. In 1979, she became the first woman publisher of a weekly consumer magazine: New York. She left that position to become president of USA TODAY in September 1983, and over the next eight years was the newspaper's president, then publisher, as well as board member and executive vice president/marketing of Gannett, its parent company. In 1991, she became president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, where she served for five years before joining Hearst. Black is one of only three women to have appeared on Fortune magazine's "50 Most Powerful Women in Business" list each year since it debuted in 1998.
When Vega became the publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle in January 2005, he was the Chronicle's third new publisher in four years. Today, the Chronicle and its website, SFGate.com, reach 1.9 million Bay Area adults each week. The San Francisco Chronicle is the largest newspaper in Northern California and one of the largest on the West Coast. SFGate.com is among the nation's top 10 newspaper websites, attracting more than 12 million unique visitors each month.
As a young 30-something, Vega was tapped to be part of a research team exploring the launch of a national daily newspaper. Vega was responsible for identifying and solving the challenges of daily distribution of a newspaper on an unprecedented, coast-to-coast scale. After the launch of USA TODAY, Vega became publisher of Florida Today in 1984 and a Gannett regional president, responsible for several newspapers in the southeast U.S.
In 1991, Vega went to Detroit where he became president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, responsible for overseeing the joint operations of the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press.
Black and Vega are the 23rd and 24th people honored by the university and the Freedom Forum since the Al Neuharth Award program began in 1989.